C. Wright Mills

Who is to blame for unemployment? The system or the individual?

Get started Sign up for free
C. Wright Mills C. Wright Mills

Create learning materials about C. Wright Mills with our free learning app!

  • Instand access to millions of learning materials
  • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams and more
  • Everything you need to ace your exams
Create a free account

Millions of flashcards designed to help you ace your studies

Sign up for free

Convert documents into flashcards for free with AI!

Table of contents

    According to C. Wright Mills, very often personal troubles, like an individual’s joblessness, turn out to be public issues. A sociologist must look at people and society in a wider context, or even from a historical perspective to point to the sources of social inequality and the nature of power distribution.

    • We will look at the life and career of Charles Wright Mills.
    • Then, we will discuss C. Wright Mills’ beliefs.
    • We will mention his conflict theory in sociology.
    • We will move on to two of his most influential books, The Power Elite and The Sociological Imagination.
    • C. Wright Mills’ theory on private troubles and public issues will also be analysed.
    • Finally, we will discuss his legacy.

    C. Wright Mills’ biography

    Charles Wright Mills was born in 1916 in Texas, United States. His father was a salesman, so the family frequently moved and Mills lived in many places during his childhood.

    He started his university studies at Texas A&M University, and then went to the University of Texas in Austin. He received his BA degree in Sociology and his MA degree in Philosophy. Mills received his PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1942. His dissertation focused on the sociology of knowledge and on pragmatism.

    He published sociological articles in the American Sociological Review and in the American Journal of Sociology while still a student, which was a great accomplishment. Even at this stage, he had established a reputation for himself as a skilled sociologist.

    In his personal life, Mills was married four times to three different women. He had a child from each of his wives. The sociologist suffered from a heart condition and had three heart attacks towards the end of his life. He died in 1962 at the age of 46.

    C. Wright Mills, Picture of C. Wright MIlls, StudySmarterFig. 1 - C. Wright Mills established himself at an early stage in his career.

    C. Wright Mills’ career

    During his PhD, Mills became an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland, where he taught for another four years.

    He started to publish journalistic articles in The New Republic, The New Leader and in Politics. Thus, he began to practice public sociology.

    After Maryland, he went to be a research associate at Columbia University, and later he became an assistant professor in the sociology department of the institution. In 1956, he was promoted to Professor there. Between 1956 and 1957 Mills was a Fulbright lecturer at the University of Copenhagen.

    C. Wright Mills’ beliefs about public sociology

    Mills' ideas on public sociology and the responsibilities of social scientists were formulated fully during his time at Columbia.

    He claimed that it was not enough to merely observe society; sociologists must act on their social responsibility toward the public and affirm moral leadership. This was the only way to take over leadership from people who lacked the qualifications for it.

    Have a look at this quote from C. Wright Mills: Letters and Autobiographical Writings (2000).

    The more we understand what is happening in the world, the more frustrated we often become, for our knowledge leads to feelings of powerlessness. We feel that we are living in a world in which the citizen has become a mere spectator or a forced actor, and that our personal experience is politically useless and our political will a minor illusion. Very often, the fear of total permanent war paralyses the kind of morally oriented politics, which might engage our interests and our passions. We sense the cultural mediocrity around us - and in us - and we know that ours is a time when, within and between all the nations of the world, the levels of public sensibilities have sunk below sight; atrocity on a mass scale has become impersonal and official; moral indignation as a public fact has become extinct or made trivial."

    C. Wright Mills’ conflict theory

    Mills focused on several issues within sociology, including social inequality, the power of elites, the shrinking middle-class, the individual’s place in society and the significance of historical perspective in sociological theory. He is normally associated with conflict theory, which viewed social issues from a different perspective than traditionalist, functionalist thinkers.

    One of Mill’s most famous works was The Power Elite which he published in 1956.

    C. Wright Mills: The Power Elite (1956)

    Mills was influenced by the theoretical perspective Max Weber was famous for. It is present in all of his work, including the one on The Power Elite.

    According to Mills’ theory, military, industrial and government elites created an interconnected power structure through which they controlled society for their own benefits at the expense of the public. There is no real competition between social groups, neither for power nor for material benefits, the system is not fair, and the distribution of resources and power is unjust and unequal.

    Mills described the power elite as a peaceful, relatively open group, which respects civil liberties and normally follows constitutional principles. While many of its members are from prominent, powerful families, people from any walks of life can become members of the power elite if they work hard, adopt the ‘suitable’ values and get to the highest-ranking positions of three industries in particular. According to Mills, the US’s power elite has its members from three areas:

    • the highest ranks of politics (the president and key advisors)
    • the leadership of the biggest corporate organisations
    • and the highest ranks of the military.

    The majority of the power elite come from upper-class families; they attended the same primary and secondary schools, and they went to the same Ivy League universities. They belong to the same societies and clubs at universities, and later to the same business and charity organizations. Intermarriage is very common, which makes this group even more tightly connected.

    The power elite is not a secret society ruling by terror and dictatorship, as some conspiracy theories claim. It does not have to be. It is enough, according to Mills, that this group of people control the highest positions in business and politics and that they have a culture of shared values and beliefs. They do not have to turn to repression or violence.

    Let us now look at Mills’s other influential work, The Sociological Imagination (1959).

    C. Wright Mills: The Sociological Imagination (1959)

    In this book, Mills describes how sociologists understand and study society and the world. He especially stresses the importance of seeing individuals and their everyday lives in connection to grand social forces rather than individually.

    The historical context of society and the individual’s life can lead us to the realization that ‘personal troubles’ are actually ‘public issues’ for Mills.

    C. Wright Mills: private troubles and public issues

    Personal troubles refer to issues that an individual experiences, for which they are blamed by the rest of society. Examples include eating disorders, divorce and unemployment.

    Public issues refer to problems that many individual experiences at the same time, and that arise due to faults in the social structure and culture of society.

    Mills argued that one needs to adopt a sociological imagination to see the structural problems behind individual troubles.

    C. Wright Mills, man with a sign need a job, StudySmarterFig. 2 - According to Mills, unemployment is a public issue rather than a private trouble.

    Mills considered the example of unemployment. He argued that if only a couple of people were unemployed, it could be blamed on their laziness or personal struggles and incompetencies of the individual. However, millions of people are unemployed in the US, so unemployment is better understood as a public issue because:

    ...the very structure of opportunities has collapsed. Both the correct statement of the problem and the range of possible solutions require us to consider the economic and political institutions of the society, and not merely the personal situation and character of a scatter of individuals. (Oxford, 1959)

    Other works by Mills include:

    • From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (1946)
    • The New Men of Power (1948)
    • White Collar (1951)
    • Character and Social Structure: the Psychology of Social (1953)
    • The Causes of World War Three (1958)
    • Listen, Yankee (1960)

    C. Wright Mills’ sociological legacy

    Charles Wright Mills was an influential journalist and sociologist. His work contributed greatly to the contemporary ways of teaching sociology and thinking about society.

    Alongside Hans H. Gerth, he popularised Max Weber’s theories in the US. Furthermore, he introduced Karl Mannheim’s ideas on the sociology of knowledge to the study of politics.

    He also created the term ‘New Left’, referring to the leftist thinkers of the 1960s. It is widely used in sociology even today. Two years after his death, an annual award was named in his honour by the Society for the Study of Social Problems.

    C. Wright Mills - Key takeaways

    • C. Wright Mills is normally associated with conflict theory, which viewed social issues from a different perspective than traditionalist, functionalist thinkers.
    • Mills focused on several issues within sociology, including social inequality, the power of elites, the shrinking middle-class, the individual’s place in society and the significance of historical perspective in sociological theory.
    • According to Mills, military, industrial and government elites created an interconnected power structure through which they controlled society for their own benefits at the expense of the public.
    • The historical context of society and the individual’s life can lead us to the realisation that ‘personal troubles’ are actually ‘public issues’, says Mills.
    • Mills created the term ‘New Left’, referring to the leftist thinkers of the 1960s. It is widely used in sociology even today.

    References

    1. Fig. 1 - C Wright Mills established himself at an early stage in his career (https://flickr.com/photos/42318950@N02/9710588041) by Institute for Policy Studies (https://www.flickr.com/photos/instituteforpolicystudies/9710588041/in/photostream/) is licensed by CC-BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
    Frequently Asked Questions about C. Wright Mills

    What are the three elements of C. Wright Mills's The Sociological Imagination?

    In his book, The Sociological Imagination, Mills describes how sociologists understand and study society and the world. He especially stresses the importance of seeing individuals and their everyday lives in connection to grand social forces rather than individually.

    The historical context of society and the individual’s life can lead us to the realization that ‘personal troubles’ are actually ‘public issues’ for Mills.

    How does C. Wright Mills view socialization through a conflict theory lens?

    Mills focused on several issues within sociology, including social inequality, the power of elites, the shrinking middle-class, the individual’s place in society and the significance of historical perspective in sociological theory. He is normally associated with conflict theory, which viewed social issues from a different perspective than traditionalist, functionalist thinkers.

    What is C. Wright Mills's theory about power?

    According to Mills’ theory on power, military, industrial and government elites created an interconnected power structure through which they controlled society for their own benefits at the expense of the public. There is no real competition between social groups, neither for power nor for material benefits, the system is not fair, and the distribution of resources and power is unjust and unequal.

    What was C. Wright Mills's contribution to sociology?

    Among Mills's most important contributions to sociology were his ideas on public sociology and the responsibility of social scientists. He claimed that it was not enough to merely observe society; sociologists must act on their social responsibility toward the public and affirm moral leadership. This was the only way to take over leadership from people who lacked the qualifications for it.

    What does C. Wright Mills mean by the promise?

    C. Wright Mills argues that the sociological imagination is a promise to individuals that they have the power to understand their place and their private issues' place in the broader historical and sociological context.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Mills was married three times to three different women.

    Mills is normally associated with conflict theory, which viewed social issues from a different perspective than traditionalist, functionalist thinkers.

    Mills described the power elite as a closed, dictatorial group, who ruled the world by terror and repression.

    Next

    Discover learning materials with the free StudySmarter app

    Sign up for free
    1
    About StudySmarter

    StudySmarter is a globally recognized educational technology company, offering a holistic learning platform designed for students of all ages and educational levels. Our platform provides learning support for a wide range of subjects, including STEM, Social Sciences, and Languages and also helps students to successfully master various tests and exams worldwide, such as GCSE, A Level, SAT, ACT, Abitur, and more. We offer an extensive library of learning materials, including interactive flashcards, comprehensive textbook solutions, and detailed explanations. The cutting-edge technology and tools we provide help students create their own learning materials. StudySmarter’s content is not only expert-verified but also regularly updated to ensure accuracy and relevance.

    Learn more
    StudySmarter Editorial Team

    Team Sociology Teachers

    • 9 minutes reading time
    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
    Save Explanation Save Explanation

    Study anywhere. Anytime.Across all devices.

    Sign-up for free

    Sign up to highlight and take notes. It’s 100% free.

    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App

    The first learning app that truly has everything you need to ace your exams in one place

    • Flashcards & Quizzes
    • AI Study Assistant
    • Study Planner
    • Mock-Exams
    • Smart Note-Taking
    Join over 22 million students in learning with our StudySmarter App
    Sign up with Email

    Get unlimited access with a free StudySmarter account.

    • Instant access to millions of learning materials.
    • Flashcards, notes, mock-exams, AI tools and more.
    • Everything you need to ace your exams.
    Second Popup Banner